Demon Hunters do not mess around. Demon Hunters do not play fair. They're one of the biggest new features in World of Warcraft: Legion [official site], and even in alpha, they're a force to be reckoned with. They're not finished, but they are Prepared. I've been taking one for a spin, and here's how they're going to kick all of the arse.
Without getting too bogged down in lore, Demon Hunters are Illidari - servants of Illidan Stormrage, the boss of the Burning Crusade expansion, and one of Blizzard's few Fallen Tragic Heroes™ not yet to be redeemed. He's actually had a pretty raw time of it compared to the others, being made an evil expansion boss for pretty weak reasons, and now mostly remembered for the most overused Warcraft lines since "You no take candle!" Blizzard's been promising to go back and give him his due pretty much ever since, and Legion is set to be his return to either glory or descent to final damnation, depending on how things finally play out.
At the same time as finally killing off the "Leia Slave Bikini" fetish, apparently.
Brr. There's a thing nobody needed to see.
For Illidan though, Legion kicks off just as his most recent fall begins, with a band of nameless heroes approaching the Black Temple, but his forces focused on taking out an incursion by the Burning Legion - an interdimensional demon army. You're part of that defense force, acting as a one-elf (Blood or Night as you prefer) weapon of mass destruction. It's closest in style to the Death Knight opening, with you starting as a Level 98 badass and quickly assembling an entire action bar of increasingly crazy abilities. Eye-beams that cut through anything in front of you, channelled so that you can turn and spread the love. Metamorphosis, where you leap into the air and crash down as a super-powered demon. Vengeful Retreat, where everything around you gets a stern clip around the ear and a few seconds slow-down while you vault away and make your escape. Hurling your warglaives so they ricochet off enemies. That's just the Havoc skill-line, focused on DPS. The second, Vengeance, has yet to be added, but promises useful things like placeable Sigils that will dish out effects like Silence and Taunt to anything in the area, and replace the eye-beams with self-immolation.
Hmm. Yeah, I'll stick with the eye-beams, cheers.
Immediately, the Demon Hunter feels a worthy successor to the Death Knight - a character type that doesn't just offer powerful attacks, but shakes up the status quo. That's not something I'd say for the Monk, the new Mists of Pandaria class that I never felt really earned its place in the line-up, and which Blizzard never seemed entirely comfortable with. Demon Hunters are on a whole new power level in lore, look and approach, regardless of how their skills are balanced - essentially, like superheroes have arrived in Azeroth, and they're all a bunch of power-drinking dicks. With x-ray vision, brief invisibility, and the ability to become what they hate on command.
It'll be interesting to see the effect of the Demon Hunters across the game. Despite the Vengeance tanking spec, they seem more like a solo-focused class than one designed to slot neatly into the dungeons and raiding system. That might be partly their aesthetics, but they have a definite vibe in a way that even Death Knights didn't.
Practically, the big change is that their defining trait isn't their new fancy attacks, but their mobility. Every Demon Hunter has three skills by default - charge, double-jump and glide. Charge dashes forwards hitting everything in the way, you can hold two uses of it, and after that, there's only a 10 second recharge to deploy it again. Double-jump is exactly what it sounds like, letting the Demon Hunter get higher and vault over taller obstacles than any other class. What's that? Yes, you can indeed combine them, double-jumping and Charging in the air. Finally, Glide... it's the only somewhat disappointing one, since while it allows them to fall from any height without so much as wobbling their ludicrously oversized shoulder-pads (no doubt to be supplied by the dungeons), it's at a very tight angle and really just a Slow Fall effect bound to the Space Bar. I was hoping for something a bit more swoopy than just falling with style.
Despite the cool factor of these skills though, and this may be tuned later on, it's very obvious that the World of Warcraft engine isn't designed for this kind of stuff. Think how it handles its vehicles - it's been doing them for years, but you still feel the delay, the cooldowns, the general clunkiness that won't be entirely swept under the rug. It's similar with the Demon Hunters so far, especially after Guild Wars 2 and other more recent MMOs with more fluid traversal baked in from the start. You'll get your double-jump, but it's laggy. Sometimes Glide won't fire as it's meant to. The added mobility is a great addition, but it's obvious that the designers are fighting tooth and claw with the engine to make it work instead of simply unlocking more power.
What I've played of the main expansion so far has been Blizzard much more in its comfort zone. Kill five of these, collect ten of those, you know the drill and shouldn't be surprised to see it. There's a few tweaks here and there, including characters now popping up on screen to deliver dialogue from far away instead of just yelling at the top of their voices, and a few minor interface changes, but nothing especially notable.
The biggest change is that the progression through the map now seems driven more by your character's class than side, dialing down the 'You are the Commander of the Horde, now get me five bear asses' element of Warriors of Draenor for simply leading your faction from their base - for the Demon Hunters, that's a personal spaceship called the Fel Hammer. I don't know how it plays out with the other classes yet, but it works for them. During the tutorial you earn your place as their leader, seize the ship, and then prove yourself by retrieving one of Illidan's lost weapons, at which point a battle table opens up and you're invited to choose where you enter the new location, the Broken Isles, to begin the campaign against the Burning Legion.
I'm still a little mixed on the weapon system, where each class now has a choice of Artifacts for each specialisation that upgrade along with them. I'm not against the idea in principle, since everyone in a spec does tend to use the same weapon anyway and at least this time you get some control over it, though it does definitely feel more restrictive being essentially handed a specific Warglaive or whatever and told "You WILL use this weapon." You will, incidentally, because it seems unlikely that anything else will come close. Each Artifact weapon unlocks more power as you progress, with slots to add additional power. For the Havoc Demon Hunter, there's nothing too exciting on offer, with most upgrades smacking of the old Talent system that gave 5% to this and took a couple of seconds off that rather than giving cool new abilities.
On the flip-side, customisation is taking a massive jump with changes to the Transmogrification system. Any items you get now just go into a Wardrobe, similar to in DC Universe Online and other more customisation-driven MMOs, after which you can do what you want with the original and still make use of its look whenever you like. Ditched it before the change? I can't test this myself because I'm not using my main character on the alpha server, but the plan is that your character will start Legion with anything they would have acquired from completed quests up to this point whether or not you actually chose it or not. (Somehow I suspect this is less generosity than nobody wanting to figure out a way to work out which everybody picked...) Oh, and everything you collect will be account-wide, with a browser that shows you what you're missing and gives a nudge for how to get it, and the ability to try out anything on your character's paperdoll regardless of whether you have it. This is a massive, massive improvement over the clunky and horrible transmog system of the past and should do wonders for breaking up the homogeneity that still plagues most WoW characters. You can also now hide your character's shoulder armour, set hidden slots for each outfit, share Outfits, and transmog weapon enchantments, shirts and tabards.
I like the Demon Hunter class, though I suspect when Legion comes around, I'll be sticking with my mage. I love World of Warcraft's mages, and we've been together on various servers and a couple of side changes for too many years to jump at the first hussy who can summon Fel powers. They're a good example though of why World of Warcraft remains so interesting - that while the core of the game may be following the rules laid down back at launch, the details and spins on it can still surprise and amuse with every new expansion pack. It's showing its age, and increasingly content to cater for existing fans than hope for a return to its once-glory. If it keeps doing it like this though, it's got many good years of life and angry forum comments left in it.
World of Warcraft: Legion is due out next Summer.